Samsung have always had a strong track record when it has come to mobile phones. They have always been cutting-edge and have seemed to bend the norm when it comes to mobile phone standards. Their phones have always been admired for their design, interface and practicality – and this admiration has been reflected in their sales figures; according to Mobile Burn, Samsung shipped 280 million units in 2010 (by contrast, Apple shipped a mere 47.4 million units).
In June 2010, Samsung released one of their most famous phones, the Galaxy S, which was seen as unbeatable at the time due to its claims of being the fastest smartphone on the market. Now there’s a new beast on the prowl: the Samsung Galaxy S II. It’s been around in Europe for a couple of months now (the phone was first released in the UK and South Korea in May 2011) and the U.S. launch is due very soon.
The Samsung Galaxy S II is, without a shadow of doubt, the best Android smartphone out there yet and is a strong contender for the best smartphone in the world period. Its sheer range of features, unbeatable specifications and damn good looks leave other smartphones quivering in the shadows of its almightiness. You’re itching to find out why, aren’t you? Well, read on for my full, in-depth review.
Introduction and First Impressions
The S II has not yet been officially released in the US at the time of writing, so unfortunately there is no official price information from Samsung, however you can expect to get one for around $199 on a two year contract. In the UK and Europe, the S II can be had for around £415 (€475) SIM-free from places like Amazon UK.
They say that first impressions are the strongest, and Samsung clearly had this in mind when designing the S II. It is boxed up simply and beautifully (and, rather strangely, very similar to the iPhone with the phone sitting on top and everything else underneath – this is one of the reasons why Apple is suing Samsung!) and you feel slightly guilty taking it out of its pristine packaging!
The S II and its box
Inside, you get the phone (obviously), a Micro-USB charger, a pair of Samsung’s standard headphones, a USB cable and that’s pretty much it. Given the enormous 4.3-inch screen, I would have liked to have seen a micro fibre cloth so you can clean it, however the screen is oleophobic meaning it is resistant to grubby pawprints.
The first thing that strikes you after you’ve finished drooling over it is simply how light and thin the S II is. It is the thinnest dual-core smartphone on the planet at the moment and weighs a mere 116 g (4 oz). To achieve this weight, though, Samsung have had to cut out any bulk in during the manufacturing process and to my great disappointment, the battery cover is simply a piece of cheap plastic which feels like it’s going to break when you’re peeling it off to put in your battery and SIM card.
The S II's rear end
On top of the S II is a 2 MP camera for video calling (the S II supports video calling over 3G and third-party applications such as Skype) and on the bottom there is a large button which doubles up as the Home button, along with two touch buttons which function as Menu and Back respectively. Along the left-hand side of the S II you’ve got your volume rocker; on the top is a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack; along the right is the power/lock button; and on the bottom is a Micro-USB port, which also doubles up as a HDMI output port.
The side-on view of the S II
The next thing that hits you square in the face when you turn the phone on is the display. Yes, its that WVGA Super-AMOLED plus one you’ve heard about before. Although it’s not quite as crisp as the Retina Display that Apple offers on its iPhone 4, it still takes some beating when compared to other similar phones. The text is crystal clear and you have to really squint to pick out the individual pixels. Colours are sharp and vibrant.
The screen jumps out at you the moment you turn on the S II
When you start up the phone for the first time, the standard Android setup wizard pops up and helps you configure your phone for the first time, such as setting up your mobile internet and WiFi settings and syncing with your Google account. But, before we look at the S II in a bit more detail, let’s take a look at what is really lurking under that mighty screen…
The S II’s specifications are enough to make other phones green with envy, as it really does pack a mighty punch when it comes to specifications. Here are some that are worth shouting about:
1.2 GHz dual-core processor
1 GB RAM
16 GB of in-built storage that is expandable up to a total of 48 GB using a Micro-SD card
480 x 800 pixel, 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass oleophobic Super AMOLED Plus scratch-resistant display
8 MP camera capable of capturing 1080p HD video at 30 fps.
The battery life on the S II is also worth mentioning here. The phone comes with a 1650 mAh battery and Samsung claims 18 hours talk time on normal 2G networks (9 hours on 3G networks) with a stand-by time of 710 hours (30 days) on 2G networks; 620 hours on 3G networks. After a full charge, I found that with moderate usage on a 3G network (calling, texting and a bit of web surfing), the battery had diminished to around 75% after 12 hours usage, even on maximum screen brightness, which is impressive for a smartphone with such a monstrous screen.
The S II runs Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread with Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 interface cemented on top. The interface is surprisingly easy to use and has been noted for being a huge update to previous incarnations of TouchWiz. You won’t find any problems using TouchWiz if you are migrating from other phones to the S II, and it won’t pose any problems for people accustomed to using Android. You can add up to 7 home screens and on each home screen you can add icons, widgets, shortcuts and folders.
The TouchWiz 4.0 interface on the S II
Along the bottom sit your shortcuts to your phone, contacts, SMS and MMS messages, and applications. The S II is multi-touch and to get a quick overview of your home screens (like in the right-hand screenshot above), you simply pinch your fingers together (much like on HTC Sense).
The menu view on the S II and swiping through the home screens
When you get to the menu view, your applications are arranged in a grid; to flick through them, you simply swipe left and right. A line of dots on the bottom of the screen lets you know which home screen you are on. A nifty feature that I discovered is that if you touch the dots and hold them down, you can quickly swipe through home screens.
Editing the application launcher and adding folders
You can arrange your applications in a list view (however this is pretty cumbersome if you’ve got loads of applications like I do) and you can add folders and pages to your menu. One of the most convenient features I found is that if you go into the Edit view, you can uninstall applications quickly by simply tapping on the little delete circle that appears next to each application icon (this doesn’t work for the default applications included with the phone, though). On my old phone, the Desire HD, I had to either go into the list of my applications on the Market or into the list of Applications in the phone’s Settings menu to delete applications, so this really is a nice, little touch.
Thanks to the S II’s mighty 1.2 GHz processor, TouchWiz’s built-in applications are buttery smooth and there is absolutely no evidence of stuttering or lag. The touchscreen display is a huge improvement on previous Samsung models and responds to even the tiniest movement – you need only to brush your finger over the screen for the phone to respond.
Calling and Contacts
The S II supports voice calling and, depending on the network operator and network coverage, video calling as well through the 2 MP front-facing camera. To answer an incoming call, you simply swipe right on the green block that appears on the left-hand side of the screen to answer the call (swipe left on the red block to reject the call). You can also reject calls with text messages and this option appears when a call arrives.
An incoming call along with the option to reject a call with an SMS message
It is probably worth mentioning here that the S II also supports video calling through third-party programs such as Skype (as long as you have got the latest version).
Your default contacts view, along with the nifty feature of swiping left or right to call or text some respectively
Your contacts are arranged alphabetically, and the S II can sync with all existing address books (such as your Google contacts and your Facebook contacts). If you sync your Facebook contacts, then their avatars appear in your address book as well as when they ring you. You can organise your contacts into groups and mark them down as favourite contacts as well. Another nice touch is when viewing your contacts, you can swipe left across their name to call them or right to message them straight from your address book.
Messaging and E-Mail
The S II ensures that you aren’t kept out of the loop about anything, by supporting a plethora of different messaging possibilities.
The phone comes with Gmail and Samsung’s own e-mail program as standard, which supports the POP, IMAP, SMTP and Exchange mail systems. I found that Samsung’s offering can be at times a little clunky and difficult to use, but seeing as I use Gmail for the bulk of my e-mail, I didn’t find this to be too much of a problem (although it could be, for other people).
The Google Mail and e-mail programs on the S II
The S II supports SMS and MMS messaging, and your texts are displayed in a useful conversation view. You can add pictures, videos, audio and so on to MMS messages and when you receive an SMS or MMS message, you can access them directly from the lock screen by sliding the yellow block on the right.
The default conversation view for SMS and MMS messages, along with the message notification on the lock screen
Camera and Video
The S II features an whopping 8 megapixel camera and is capable of taking up to 3264 x 2448 photos. The quality is so good you’ll probably think of ditching your digital camera in favour of it and the built-in flash ensures you can take photos regardless of the lighting conditions.
A sample image taken out of my window with the S II (click on the image for the full-size version)
Unlike some other smartphones, the S II’s camera app features quite a range of customisation options, including for the shooting mode, exposure value, focus mode and so on. You can also shoot 1080p HD-quality video up to 30fps using the camera, and the in-built video editor allows you to do some (basic) editing on the move.
The S II comes with Android’s standard browser offering, which isn’t worth boasting about until you realise that the 1.2 GHz processor means that web pages are loaded blisteringly fast. Like most Android phones, the S II supports Flash and thanks to that monstrous processor, there is absolutely no stuttering when you are viewing Flash plug-ins, a real bonus (and since I’ve had the phone, I’ve experienced absolutely no force-closes with the browser).
The S II's buil-in web browser
When I first got the phone, I was dismayed to find that web pages did not automatically resize when I zoomed in – until I found this option in the settings (More > Settings > Auto-fit pages). There is no tabbed browsing (which would be impractical on such a small screen), but you can bring up the Windows view, which gives you a view of all your open windows).
The Windows view in the S II's browser
Thanks to the mighty display, the text on web pages is sharp and pictures are bright and colour-rich. The S II supports browsing speeds of up to 21 Mbps over HSDPA and possesses 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity, enabling a rapid, rich internet browsing experience.
It is fair to say that Android phones are often let down by their multimedia capacities (especially when compared to the iPhone), so I was interested to see how the S II fared against other smartphones on the market. Seeing as I use my phone as my MP3 player, I wanted a phone with plenty of media capability.
The S II has a built-in music player which supports MP3, AAC, AAC+ and eAAC. If you have got a PC, then you can use the Kies Air facility, which allows you to sync your music over the local Wi-Fi network (unfortunately this function is not yet available in the Mac version). The music player lists your beats by either playlists, albums or artists in either a list or thumbnail view.
The default music player on the S II. Be warned that it can be a bit temperamental at times, though
Note that if your music is in AAC format (like mine was), the S II will not be able to read the ID3 data that is attached to the song (meaning that it is not able to read the artist and album info). A simple way to avoid this problem is to convert all your music into MP3 and sync again.
The built-in equaliser allows you to customise the sound of your music and even features an “auto” setting, which adjusts according to the music you are listening to. I was disappointed to find that the SRS WOW plug-in wasn’t available (this only seems to be present on HTC phones) seeing as I like my tunes quite bassy, but I soon discovered that tinkering around with the equaliser slightly produced a good sound. The S II comes with a pair of Samsung’s standard headphones which are surprisingly good to be honest, but you can of course connect your favourite pair using the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone.
The equaliser and the built-in Kies Air application, allowing you to sync your media files via your local WiFi network
On my phone, however, the music player crashes quite frequently (for no apparent reason), so much so that I have been forced to use doubletwist, a third-party offering, however this may just be an isolated issue. If you’ve got a Mac, you can also sync over WiFi using doubletwist’s built-in AirSync feature. The S II also features a built-in FM radio, however this only works when Samsung’s earpiece is connected (which doubles up as the antenna).
When it comes to videos, the S II supports MPEG4, H.263, H.264 and DivX (AVI) videos, which can all be played using the default video player. You can also do some (basic) video editing on the move using Samsung’s own video maker program, which allows you to jazz up your videos with music and pictures. A YouTube app comes as standard as well, which lets you view, comment and share videos easily.
The S II comes with plenty of built-in apps that will help you get started the moment you get the phone out of the box, such as Google Maps, Polaris Office (which allows you to view and edit documents), Vlingo voice talk (see our full review), a file browser and manager, and a diary app (for typing up your daily thoughts).
Two of the default built-in applications: Google Maps and Vlingo voice control
Aside the standard apps, Samsung has also felt the need to equip the S II with its own applications – or so-called hubs – which aren’t exactly things you’d write home about. You get the Game Hub, which offers a small selection of Samsung-selected games; Music Hub, which allows you to purchase songs from 7digital via your Samsung account; Readers Hub, which offers a small selection of books and magazines; Samsung Apps, a cut-down version of the Market; and Social Hub, which pools your e-mails and Facebook feeds into one application.
The Samsung Games and Reader hubs
The problem is that these “hubs” are simply less-functional, cut-down versions of existing applications on the S II and are, unfortunately, nothing more than a waste of space (though at least they don’t hog much space). The best thing to do with them is turn off the updates and quietly ignore them.
For PC users, you can download Samsung’s Kies application (available here), which allows you to sync all your pictures, music and videos to your S II. It also enables the Kies Air feature, which means you don’t have to dig out that cable to sync your phone – everything is done over the local WiFi network.
Samsung's Kies on a Windows PC
Unfortunately for Mac users, the Mac version of Kies is very cut down and only lets you synchronise pictures, music and videos to your S II. The program isn’t compatible with Lion either, so to get it working you will have to download an older version (available here) and manually upgrade once it is installed to the latest version.
Well, the burning question is: how do all these wonderful features add up? The answer is: absolutely perfectly.
The S II is a marvellous feat of engineering and design. It’s so light that you sometimes forget that it’s in your pocket, and the sheer range of features and top-notch specifications are enough to start other phone manufacturers sweating with worry.
So, to round up, let’s take a look at the arguments for and against the S II:
Crystal-clear and extremely responsive touchscreen
Blazingly-fast processor which seems to handle everything you throw at it
Slim, lightweight design
A wide range of in-built apps
Fantastic camera and 1080p HD video recording
Outstanding battery life
A nasty, cheap, plastic battery cover
The default keyboard is too small to use properly
Samsung Apps are both useless and a waste of space
It’s just short of half a grand!
The S II is, without a shadow of doubt, the best Android smartphone out there on the market right now.